Johnie Kirton: Lessons from a fine young man

When C.J. Gable broke through the Washington defense on a November night in 2008, the USC running back and nearly everyone else in the Los Angeles Coliseum assumed that he was on his way to another Trojans touchdown.

But on a night when the game was all but decided, and in the latter part of a season that was spiraling to historic lows, one person decided not to let Gable waltz into the end zone to extend an already massive lead. Johnie Kirton, a 296-pound defensive tackle of all people, somehow managed to chase Gable down 50 yards beyond the line of scrimmage to, for a moment anyway, save the Huskies further embarrassment in a game they were on their way to losing 56-0.

“At that point, yeah sure, we were down by 40 or something like that, but to me it’s never over, so I’m never going to let anybody score that easily,” Kirton explained after the game.

Looking back, that play, that display of pride and determination, was one of the best moments of a season that would go down in infamy as the worst in UW football history. During a winless season in which so much went wrong, Kirton made a play defensive linemen just aren’t supposed to make, not because a conference title or a bowl berth or even a single victory was on the line, but simply because his passion for the game dictated that he go all out to make the tackle.

That play was also pure Johnie Kirton. Kirton, who died Monday night at the age of 26 of still undetermined causes, was a perfect example of a person who found the good in any situation. Of all the athletes I’ve covered at the high school, college and professional level, few had a more positive outlook when things went wrong than did Kirton.

When his college career failed to live up to the lofty expectations created by his legendary high school career at Jackson, Kirton refused to dwell about what might have been and instead talked about how cool it was that he got to experience so many different things by playing three positions in college. And even in final weeks of that dismal 2008 season, Kirton could manage to smile and put a positive spin on things.

“Things just didn’t work out the way (we wanted),” Kirton said prior to his final home game. “… It’s not a perfect world, I guess you could say. But there are no regrets. Me and my classmates have gotten the best and the most out of the UW football and we’ve enjoyed our time here.”

Kirton loved football, win or lose, so he kept grinding away to prolong his career, even if it meant playing in the low-pay, little-glory world of arena football. But while football was his passion, it wasn’t the only thing in Kirton’s life.

“Johnie truly knew and understood how blessed he was,” said Joel Vincent, Kirton’s coach at Jackson. “He understood that he was part of a much bigger thing.”

Not surprisingly, the best conversations I had with Kirton while on the UW beat were about topics other than football. In particular, he couldn’t tell you enough about the study abroad trip he and teammates Luke Kravitz and Desmond Davis took to South Africa before their senior season. The trip was three eye-opening months that included helping at local schools in the classroom and with after school programs.

“It was a positive for me not only in the school aspect, but internally from the things that I saw and the things that I got to do down there,” Kirton said in the spring of 2008. “… I’m just going to internalize what I learned there and use it to better myself back home in America.”

That trip meant missing offseason workouts with teammates, and led to Kirton and the two others starting spring football at the bottom of the depth chart at their respective positions. But Kirton knew there were bigger things in life than football.

“It would have been real easy to stay and focus on football, but to him that trip was important,” Vincent said. “He was a kid who had his priorities straight and understood the bigger picture.”

Whether he was trying to help kids in South Africa, or chase down a running back in a game his team had no chance of winning, or more recently, lovingly raising his daughter, Jayde, Kirton was all heart.

As he prepared for his final year at Washington, Kirton said, “I feel like I still have a lot left to show people.”

On and off the field, Kirton showed people plenty in a life that ended far too soon.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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